Friday, 25 December 2009

Reflection: Light has come into the world

Preacher: Lesley Misrahi

For many people, this has not been an easy year. The world has continued in economic crisis and we know that this has meant that some people have lost jobs and income. In some countries, for those whose livelihood was precarious at best, it has meant the difference between surviving and not surviving. There have been wars and rumours of war, droughts and floods, serious illness and signs of hope which came to nothing. This has affected some in our small community. For Phyllis and Ed, there has been bereavement. Could things be much darker?

Think about Israel at the time of the first Christmas. Things were as bad then as they are now. So what did God do? He did not choose to make people puppets by forcing them to believe in him. Augustus Caesar was the most powerful man in the most powerful country on earth. He easily had more personal power than any American president. After all, Roman emperors got away with things that they would soon impeach a president for. So did God do something to make Caesar his follower? Or did he make sure that the Romans were converted first so that they could impose order on the world? Did he send an exceptionally powerful prophet?

Well, we know, of course that God went himself, and not in power, but as a baby, an ordinary baby, who wasn’t particularly quiet or sweet or clean. And he was born to a young unmarried peasant woman in a turbulent province on the fringe of the Empire. As a man he lived a short, obscure life and was executed as a criminal at the age of 33.

It seems a weak and petty way to intervene in such a big mess as we’ve been imagining in the world. But this is the one whom John describes in the passage that we read as The Word, the expression of God’s thoughts. Jesus is the one who is the true light, who enlightens everyone. If he was there to bring the light to everyone, why didn’t he do it in a big way? Well let’s think. When we came in here this morning it was quite dark and quiet. And we quietly lit the candles and it gradually got brighter and brighter. It was lovely. What would have happened if someone had suddenly switched on the light and banged a drum? We would have been dazzled, we would have shut our eyes, maybe covered our ears. For a little while perhaps we couldn’t see properly.

When the light that was Jesus came into the world, it was not to dazzle anyone, but to help them see. And those who have seen who he is and have become his followers have become the children of God.

Unlike the other gospels, John doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus. He starts with the creation of the universe. He wrote, in the passage we have read: All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. Jesus is intimately involved in the process of creation. He keeps the universe going by his constant creative impulse. And it is the one who made the world, who became a baby in Bethlehem. He is the person who lived as a human being and died for the sins of all people. He is the one who went into the darkness of death and brought out of it resurrection and forgiveness for all who believe. This pattern of bringing light out of darkness, good out of evil, is not just there at Easter. It is woven into the fabric of the Universe, which the Redeemer sustains from moment to moment. So it is that though there is much darkness in the world, there are also amazing instances of hope. The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

When you look back at what God has done with what seemed like disasters in your life, sometimes you can see this. Even at the heart of darkness there is light if we are willing to see it.

Jesus is the hope for the world now because he can transform our existence on a day to day basis. We need to have eyes to see the things that did not happen that might have done. It can be very difficult to do this. It’s like thanking God for having enough food to eat. Unless we’ve known real hunger, we don’t really know how lucky we are. Just take a few moments to think about what might have happened in your life, given the circumstances, and which you have been spared or of the ways that God has managed to bring good out of evil for you.

And we are promised that one day he will come back in the fullness of his glory.. And this time he may well dazzle people. So it’s now that we need to get our eyes used to the brightness of his light. We need to look at him and learn to walk according to the light that he has given us. Like Mary his mother we need to be willing to say ‘I am God’s servant,’ so that his light can be born in us.

But the light is not just for us, nor even just for human beings. Jesus is involved in all creation. The one who was born in Bethlehem is able to bring us new life. He is the God of new birth. Paul writes that at present all of the created order groans as if in the pains of labour as it is waiting for God’s children to be revealed. There will be, we are promised, a new world – a new heaven and a new earth. It is here now, in part and sometimes we get glimpses of it in some of the stories of hope we have heard.

This Christmas let’s rejoice in the light that has come into the world. Let’s pass that light from one to another. Instead of cursing the darkness, let each of us use the light that has come into the world to kindle a candle of hope today and for the coming year.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Labour and birth

Preacher: Lesley Misrahi

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45, Luke 1 (46-55)

Christmas is nearly here – only 5 more days. If you haven’t sent your Christmas cards yet, then tomorrow is the last day to post them First Class to be sure of them getting there by Thursday. I’ve managed to send most of mine, except to the people who have moved and I can’t find their new addresses. Some people don’t send Christmas cards as a matter of principle, but if I don’t my relatives notice and, I think, feel a bit hurt. I know because there was one year that I didn’t send out any Christmas cards at all and they commented on it.

That wasn’t a matter of principle, though, nor even poverty. That was 1984, the year that I was expecting Adam. He was due to be born on January 18th, but I felt so huge and unwieldy and had had so many warning signs that I was absolutely convinced that he’d be born at least two weeks before then. You can tell that pregnancy can upset the ability to think straight as well as everything else. Anyway, I thought I’d send out New Year cards with an announcement of the birth.

True to form, of course, Adam arrived a week late on Jan 25th!

During advent and Christmas we see our faith through the lens of pregnancy and childbirth. In this sermon I want to explore what we can learn from this metaphor of pregnancy and birth and the coming of Jesus. With Mary we are waiting for the birth of a promised child; with the people of Israel we are waiting for the coming of a promised saviour. And like maybe every pregnancy throughout human history, the waiting seems interminable. When will the baby come; when will God send His saviour to us? In the normal course of events there is nothing we can do about when it happens. The whole process of medicalised childbirth which has developed over the past 100 years or so is an effort to bring under human control a fundamentally unpredictable process.

Although we can tell roughly when a baby is due to arrive, it is notoriously difficult to tell the exact time. I have just given away a comfortable reclining chair, with brown plush upholstery – except for the ragged footrest. During the time I was expecting Esther, I decided to recover the armchair. I was still doing it when I went into labour 2 weeks early and I spent most of a day trying to sew the remaining part to cover the footrest while waiting for contractions to become more frequent. But Esther arrived and I never did get the time or energy to finish the job. I’ve finally decided that I will never get around to it after 21 years.

So babies come early or late and, for the most part – and certainly not at the time of Jesus – we can’t control it at all. That’s one of the messages that this metaphor of pregnancy gives us. The Saviour is promised and he will come, but we can’t tell when and we can’t control it. So in the passage that was read from Micah, the Jewish people knew where the Saviour would appear. They knew it would be Bethlehem – and often we can decide where a baby will be born if we are able to respond in time to the early warning signs – but they didn’t know when. They knew it was at the end of labour, but when would that be? The people did not know and meanwhile they felt abandoned by God, as we heard in Psalm 80 that we read together. Like so many births, that of the Saviour of Israel was looked forward to with huge expectation and an increasing amount of stress and discomfort. In the case of the people of Israel it was a time of being humiliated as they were conquered repeatedly by different alien empires – Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman. “You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us”, we read in Psalm 80. The people who believed they were chosen of God were despised and oppressed by others and wondering why God allowed this, and when their deliverance would take place.

Mary also faced disgrace and shame. The faithfulness of Joseph in response to the dream that was sent to him enabled her to escape the stigma of being an unmarried mother, although there was probably some whispering around the village. He saved Jesus from being born in abject poverty to a woman with little means of earning a living in Jewish society. Instead they were supported by a skilled artisan, so they were not quite at the bottom of the heap in Jewish society – but that would change.

Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist and there was instant recognition of the special nature of what was happening to the two women. Perhaps this was the only person who might have understood what was happening to her and who shared her amazement and apprehension. Pregnancy, in any case, tends to create a bond between women, as they are going through similar experiences. In fact, the kind of tension produced by waiting for something we both fear and long for can be reduced by sharing it with others in the same situation. I’m thinking about the kind of conversation you get between the people waiting outside the room before an exam or in hospital before an operation. As we wait for what God has in store for us, we may find that it helps if we share our expectations with others. For Mary this was also the occasion of one of the great songs of the Scriptures – the Magnificat - which we just sang as ‘My soul is filled with joy’. She shared her wonder and amazement at what God would do through her.

The possibility of reproduction is in any case a deep mystery. How is it that out of one human being can come another one, who has a separate consciousness and identity, who is so different genetically from the mother that her body must do complicated things to prevent the foetus from being destroyed by the mother’s immune system? Pregnancy is a strange state in which there is now a real human being who can respond independently – as John the Baptist leapt inside Elizabeth. But that new person is not here yet and cannot really be known. The baby has not yet been made manifest, except as an anonymous ‘bump’ yet increasingly the child can respond to sensations from the world. It is a picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus coming inaugurated the Kingdom and it is here. Yet we know it is not complete. God’s rule is not fully manifest and so we wait the promised return of Jesus and the completion of his work. The phrase that is used is now and not yet. And so we wait, as someone does during a pregnancy, beginning to form a relationship with the unborn child, yet longing to know that person fully.

The other thing we know about pregnancy of course is that It almost always involves pain and suffering. Pregnancy can involve sickness, discomfort and pain Labour is called that because it is hard work. Throughout the Bible there is a recognition that childbirth costs a woman much anguish. Micah, in an earlier chapter than the one we heard, talks about Jerusalem, the daughter of Zion, as writhing in agony like a woman in labour, as it suffered defeat and the exile of the people. So the ‘one who is in labour in the prophecy refers to the people of Israel, as well as to the birth of the Saviour. In its’ relationship with God throughout the centuries the Jewish people are often portrayed by the prophets as an unfaithful wife. And all this time Micah says is the pregnancy and labour of a people who will eventually give birth to a Saviour. So the time of exile and occupation was equated with what can be some of the most excruciating pain that a person can suffer. However, the travail of a people gives birth to the Shepherd whose greatness will be known throughout the world.

In Mary’s case it was at the end of a long journey. We always assume she had a donkey because we can’t imagine her being able to travel all that way without one, but it’s not there in the Bible. Most people in those days could not afford such a thing; so it’s very possible that she walked all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem – a distance of at least 80 miles, some of it up steep hills. And then she had to give birth in a stable – likely to be in one of the limestone caves in the area. Very poor people still live in some of those caves. It identifies Jesus as being in a position of abject poverty at his birth in a most unsuitable setting for childbirth.

We know that childbirth is a risky business. The period immediately before and after birth is the most dangerous time in anyone’s life. One of the leading causes of infant mortality in the developing world is tetanus, when the bacteria attack the baby through the severed umbilical cord. A stable is a place rich in tetanus bacteria. And it’s not without risk for the mother as well. A few months ago we looked at maternal mortality statistics and you might remember that in some countries, even today, the chances are one in ten or even one in eight that a woman’s life will end as a result of childbirth. Mary was, no doubt, exhausted from the journey. When I spent 30 hours in labour with Adam, I realised how it was possible that women in labour could die of sheer exhaustion – and I was in a modern hospital with all sorts of intervention and pain relief! It’s possible that the story could have been very different.

If we equate the birth of Jesus with the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world, in a new way, then we discover, as Micah told the people, that the coming of God does involve pain and suffering. It is risky and exhausting and hard. It is also inexorable. Once a pregnancy starts and goes beyond a certain point, even miscarriage or abortion involve a birth process. There has to be a birth or the mother and baby will die. She can’t say ‘Hold it. I’ve changed my mind.’ The woman and those around her are swept along in events which are in control of her and which she cannot stop. Just so God’s plans for the world. Having set in motion the process of incarnation – a plan motivated by love (for God so loved the world) – there could be no stopping it. God will accomplish that which God has determined to do and human intervention will not prevent the coming of the Kingdom.

A birth is something for which preparation is needed. At the least the child will need warmth and food. But Mary was unable to make adequate preparation. She had the swaddling clothes ready, but didn’t even know where this child would be born. Despite what she may have believed about the prophecies, she could have gone into labour anywhere between Nazareth and Bethlehem. So she could make only the most minimal preparation for the new arrival. And we also need to prepare for what Jesus may require of us, even if we don’t know what is going to happen.

Birth, then, is a revelation - a time when the new child is fully revealed for what he or she may be. If they had not been told by God neither Mary nor Elizabeth would have known they were having boys. Would they make blue swaddling bands or pink ones? We wait to see whether a child will be male or female, healthy or sickly, whole or with a congenital defect, taking after the mother or the father, or even whether he or she will be born alive or dead.

Each new birth carries with it a huge potential. Even if a baby is born into the most adverse social circumstances, there is a feeling at the beginning that this child could do anything. He or she could be an athlete or a scientist, a great poet or a wonderful cook or he could be the saviour of the world. He or she has the greatest potential immediately after birth. After that the world shapes and restricts what that individual may do and become. But every newborn baby usually embodies the longings and ambitions of the people close to him or her and can born with a huge burden of hope and expectation. And none more so than Jesus.

The Messiah, the Jewish Saviour, was expected to do so much. It‘s in that psalm that we read together: “Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” That was all bound up with saving the people of Israel from the nations that had conquered them. The Saviour was to be a political force to be reckoned with – a holy superman. Micah predicted; “And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.” The one that God would send would bring his people peace, relieve them from the shame of being subject to people who did not know the rule of God, and bring prosperity.

They could not imagine him as a baby in a stable. They could not associate him with a child’s bodily functions and lack of control. I remember my late husband’s Jewish father saying how he’d explored Christianity and read the New Testament, but he rejected the idea of God as a baby ‘doing pipi and kaka’. But the lectionary reading from Hebrews 10, which we did not read, insists that the coming of God’s Saviour as a human being, incarnated in a human body was essential for God’s salvation. Forever, Jesus’ willingness to become human and to undergo bodily suffering, releases us from any shame or fear of our human nature, as well as our sins, in action and in thought. There is no salvation for us without God’s incarnation as an ordinary Jewish baby.

Mary’s expectations, which we sang earlier, were much more in terms of social justice – putting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly; feeding the hungry and letting the rich taste emptiness. She was already seeing this coming into being as God had chosen someone as ordinary as she to be the mother of the Saviour promised to Israel for generations. And yet her expectations were even more far reaching than those of Jews who expected the Messiah to overthrow the Romans. It’s one thing to achieve peace by getting rid of one set of rulers and replacing them with your own people, but Mary was looking for the overthrow of the whole social order. She did not fully understand it, but she recognized that the hallmarks of the work of her holy God are justice, peace and joy.

But remember that for Mary there was a choice; she also welcomed what happened to her and was obedient to God’s intervention in her life. As a result she also welcomed the blessing which both she and Elizabeth recognized that God had given her. Maybe God thought of many Jewish maidens who could have been chosen, but knew that Mary would say yes. And we are also free to say no as well as to invite God to draw nearer. Though the plans of God are inexorable and will come to pass, we as individuals may fail to cooperate with them and so miss out on what God had hoped to give us.

Every year, as we wait for Christmas, we are also waiting for Jesus to come to us. Even if we have known him for many years, the Kingdom of God is both here now and not yet. It is always coming into being. We are enjoying God’s presence with us yet still waiting, not just for the second coming to the whole world, but his coming to us as a people and as individuals in a new and greater way. Especially at Christmas. As we celebrate Christ’s coming this year, what are our expectations? If we are drawn into the closer relationship with Jesus that our souls long for, what do we expect? Are we like those Jews who expected the Messiah to sort out their political and social injustice and to be a secular ruler? Do we expect Jesus to solve our personal problems and give us a good life? Are we like Mary who welcomed a time of social justice, but could not imagine that her son’s life would be that of an obscure religious criminal? Do we love God because we see the Almighty as a route to prosperity or success? Are we like Herod who was afraid of what might be demanded of him?

In a way, as we wait in expectation we only know three things about what the coming of Jesus means. Firstly, we can predict that when Christ comes into our lives in a new way, what happens will transcend anything that we might have expected. Jesus will not fulfil our superficial desires, but the deepest longings of our hearts, which we can scarcely admit to ourselves. Secondly, it is as much likely to involve suffering as prosperity. The more that we admit Jesus and allow him to be born in us day by day, the more this will involve challenge and change.

So the third result is that once Jesus is born for us, either coming into our lives for the first time or in a new way, with a closeness that we never dared before, our lives will be changed. After a first baby, life is never the same again. Even parents who have grown up with small children in their family of origin will seldom have had the burden of responsibility for another completely dependent life 24 hours a day. And being part of Jesus’ life is a 24/7 commitment.

A birth changes priorities. Joseph would not have taken his small family to be refugees in Egypt if Jesus had not been born. Or he could have just given up his child to Herod’s soldiers to save his skin and preserve his livelihood, but his every instinct is to protect the new life. If parents cannot set aside their own needs to some extent, they become the substance of child abuse scandals. For those of us who invite Jesus to be born in our lives in a fresh way this Christmas, our priorities must change. We are called to live not just for ourselves, but to work for the coming Kingdom of God, which is always expected, here now but yet to come, always defying our expectations, always pregnant with the promise of justice, peace and joy for us and the world.

And may God grant us all a wonderful Christmas with Jesus being born for us again this week and growing in our lives over the year to come.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Turning Around

Preacher: Sue
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Luke 3:7-18

Two weeks ago Veronica preached our first Advent sermon. Peter and I weren’t here - we were at his mother’s Anglican church for the dedication of an altar frontal which she had made in memory of Peter’s father. It’s a beautiful purple cloth and the Anglican tradition of “liturgical colours” meant that its first use was on the first Sunday in Advent. It’s instructive to note the other occasions when purple can be used in Anglican churches: Lent and funerals.

Because, as Veronica reminded us, Advent is a time of mourning and fasting as we prepare to celebrate the incarnation. That’s hard for us to remember, as even those who protest against the appearance of Christmas decorations, Christmas merchandise and canned Christmas carols in September have, by the end of November, usually begun the trail of Christmas parties and mince-pie eating themselves. So Advent often feels like a time of indulgence and too many invitations. Quite a few non-church goers give up something for Lent but whoever heard of giving up something for Advent? So it’s easy to neglect the mourning, fasting and waiting of Advent but at the very least we can give attention to those aspects of the season when we meet for worship.

And our two Old Testament readings today help us with that, particularly if we try to take them in context.

The book of Zephaniah is a sustained prophecy of doom, for Judah’s enemies who have scorned God and oppressed and mocked God’s people. Chapter one tells us (1:14a, 15-16)

The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast… That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.

And by the beginning of chapter three Zephaniah is still in full flow, but now it’s not just Judah’s neighbours and enemies who are in trouble, Judah herself is in the firing line:

Ah, soiled, defiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God… Therefore wait for me, says the Lord, for the day when I arise as a witness. For my decision is to gather nations, to assemble kingdoms, to pour out upon them my indignation, all the heat of my anger; for in the fire of my passion all the earth shall be consumed.

This is a dark and sobering vision, fitting for a time of mourning and fasting. Right now you may be wondering where our reading from Zephaniah, full of comfort and hope, fits into this dark picture. And that’s where we come to one of my favourite Advent themes. Judah is in darkness, ripe for disaster as she turns her back on God, and living in fear of enemies on her borders who look poised to execute God’s judgement. But quite unexpectedly God is going to turn it all around, turn away Judah’s enemies and create a people who live in safety and serve God.

At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him with one accord… On that day you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me… I will leave in the midst of you a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord - the remnant of Israel; they shall do no wrong and utter no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouths. Then they will pasture and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid.

This is a powerful promise in the midst of uncertainty and danger. God will put things right in spite of Judah’s faithlessness and corruption: “On that day,” God says, “you shall not be put to shame because of all the deeds by which you have rebelled against me.”

Some commentators credit Zephaniah with prompting king Josiah's reforms which for a while did indeed encourage the people of Judah to turn back to God, although this faded away again under successive kings until the people were taken into exile. But as with many of the Old Testament prophecies I think we are invited to see a second fulfilment of this prophecy in the coming of Jesus which we long for as we wait expectantly through Advent to celebrate the incarnation at Christmas. And perhaps we can also look for a third fulfilment in the future as we long for God’s kingdom to come fully and for disasters and fear to be banished.

The Isaiah reading is similar. It follows a mixture of warnings of punishment for Judah’s wayward behaviour and beautiful promises: of light coming into the darkness, of a child who will establish justice and righteousness and of an age to come in which “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). The verse just before our reading reflects thankfulness that in bringing about this vision God is choosing not to act on anger but to restore and purify: (Isaiah 12:1) “You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me.”

So in both passages God appears on the point of leaving Judah to her fate but relents, deciding to transform her situation, to rescue her and lift her graciously into safety and light. These passages reassure us in the darkness and waiting of Advent that God will turn things around in spite of us. Veronica reminded us two weeks ago that although in Advent we prepare for the coming of Jesus as if for an honoured guest, “the guest turns out to be the host” and “Jesus invites us to take part in his new, overflowing life”. And our passages from Zephaniah and Isaiah make a similar point. Although Judah has turned away from God and made herself vulnerable to her enemies, God plans to rescue her. God will establish a peaceable way of life with service and worship at its heart and will graciously invite Judah into that. I think that gives us a hope to hang on to, for ourselves when we fail time and time again to follow Jesus faithfully and for our world when it seems such a mess.

But the passage from Luke shows us the other side of the coin. It majors on people turning themselves around. It’s pretty strong stuff. “You brood of vipers!” John the Baptist castigates his hearers. Yet they flock out to hear him preach. What is that all about? Did they just like being harangued for some kind of catharsis, rather like the congregation in a book some of you may know, Cold Comfort Farm? They turned out Sunday after Sunday to “quiver” as Amos Starkadder preached fire and brimstone. Of course we all know that butter is disastrous treatment for burns, but for his audience which still swore by it, Amos Starkadder had a warning for anyone who thinks they’ll survive hell-fire by slapping butter on their scorched bodies: “there’ll be no butter in hell”.

Well, maybe that was the attraction for some but I think we can guess at some other reasons. John came into a time of fevered anticipation among the Jews in Palestine. As some of the elite collaborated with Rome, many struggled under the yoke of Roman occupation. Some longed to get back to the golden age of Israel’s power under David and Solomon and were willing to resort to violence to do so. They were hoping for a Messiah who would come in power and restore the Davidic tradition of kingship. Maybe this was in the minds of those who, verse 15 tells us, “were filled with expectation, and… questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah”.

In this turbulent time, maybe others who knew their bibles had a sense of déja vu. Although they were in their own land, surely the misery of living under occupation was much like the misery of living in exile six or seven hundred years earlier? And what had brought about the exile? The people’s own failure to live the way God wanted.

So for this group, the best response to Roman occupation was for the Jewish people to turn back to God and live holy lives. John’s call to repentance may have been music to their ears: at last another prophet (who even dressed in iconic prophet clothing of “camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist” and ate authentic prophet food, “locusts and wild honey” (Matt 3)), had come to call the people back to God and thus to open up the hope of return from exile. So perhaps for both groups John gave hope that a new age was dawning.

And we too can have that hope as we wait through Advent for Christmas. In fact we have the benefit of knowing the next few chapters in the story and knowing that with the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus a new age does indeed dawn. So Advent is a time of preparation, not just for a special guest as we thought about two weeks ago but also for a whole new age. It’s also a time to remember particularly that although the new age has begun to dawn with the coming of Jesus, it is not yet fully come. So in Advent we wait not only for Christmas but also for the second coming of Jesus to fully inaugurate that new age.

So perhaps this is a time of preparation for the future kingdom too. In thinking about that preparation, I am struck by John the Baptist’s practical challenge to his listeners to live honestly and generously. He told tax collectors "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you" and soldiers "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

And for those who are comfortably off he had those stern words about sharing excess: "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

As I read these words on Monday I was struck by their resemblance to a passage from the writings of Dorothy Day, founder of Catholic Worker, which we heard read at the end of Urban Table where five of us helped out this time last Sunday.

Love of brother means voluntary poverty, stripping one’s self, putting off the old man, denying one’s self, etc. It also means non-participation in those comforts and luxuries which have been manufactured by the exploitation of others. While our brothers suffer, we must… suffer with them. While our brothers suffer from lack of necessities, we will refuse to enjoy comforts. These resolutions, no matter how hard they are to live up to, no matter how often we fall and have to begin over again, are part of the vision and the long-range view… And we must keep this vision in mind, recognize the truth of it, the necessity for it, even though we do not, can not, live up to it. Like perfection. We are ordered to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and we aim at it, in our intention, though in our execution we may fall short of the mark over and over.

This sounds like a tall order. Maybe that’s why none of us has decided to embrace voluntary poverty. But I think there are at least some principles to draw from John the Baptist and Dorothy Day, about living and working honestly, not trying to exploit any privileged position or loophole to our advantage, not profiting at the expense of others, and about reflecting on where and how our comfortable life is really paid for and being generous with our plenty. This week we may be particularly aware of that as we reflect on who is responsible for climate change and who suffers most from it.

As I say, this is a tall order, but we have the comfort of knowing that God’s grace is there for us when we fail. Our reading from Luke sets us a high target, calling us in Advent to prepare ourselves with great seriousness, striving for perfection. But our readings from Isaiah and Zephaniah remind us that in Advent we also wait for God’s intervention against the odds and in spite of all our failings.